Thomas Carlyle

Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) was brought up as a Calvinist but was to reject this creed. He would have been a minister and went to Edinburgh University for this purpose. However, while there, he lost its dogma in favour of his own broader personal beliefs. He believed in a spiritual view of the universe at a time of greater materialism and unbelief. The Infinite God was still omnipresent and his universe was obviously a divine reality, but he fell out with established religion, and both Church and State needed regeneration. Therefore he dropped the intention of being a minister.

Thomas Carlyle: click here to continue article below

So there was new breadth in terms of belief and where religion was manifested (and a parallel here with Ralph Waldo Emerson, a life long friend). This was definitely not secularism but a position of the sacred in the secular. The divine was to be found in the real.

Through every star, through every blade of grass, is not a God made visible, if we will open our minds and eyes?. . we recognise how every object has a divine beauty in it; how every object still verily is 'a window through which we may look into infinitude itself.

Humans are the most complex and highly developed expression of God:

We are the miracle of miracles, the great inscrutable mystery of God.

As for a scripture, Carlyle logically concluded that History is the only epic poem and Universal Divine Scripture. Worship was to be found in work. This maintenance of a religious view and its breadth is illustrated in the text below, which makes these these main points:

The Sanspotato is of the selfsame stuff as the superfinest Lord Lieutenant. Not an individual sanspotato human scarecrow but had a life given him out of Heaven, with Eternities depending on it; for once and no second time. With Immensities in him, over him and around him; with feelings which a Shakespeare's speech would not utter; with desires as illimitable as the Autocrat's of all the Russias. (Chartism, 1839)

This position of religious feeling spread wide meant that Carlyle promoted his broader religion with a prose that adapted the language of the Authorised Version of the Bible. The following are examples.

The strong have eated sour grapes, and the teeth of the weak are set on edge. (Chartism, 1839)

The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the teeth of the children are set on edge. (Psalms 33, 5; Mark 4, 28; Ezekiel 34, 27)

The earth is good, and bountifully sends (forth) food and increase. (Chartism, 1839)

The earth is full of the goodness of the Lord for the earth bringeth forth fruit of herself . . . the earth shall yield her increase. (Ezekiel 18, 2)

Sainthood becomes heroism and the religious prose style was applied to all manner of great people:

We cannot look, however imperfectly, on a great man, without gaining something by him. He is the living light-fountain, which it is good and pleasant to be near. The light which enlightens, which has enlightened the darkness of the world; and this not as a kindled lamp only, but rather as a natural luminary shining out of Heaven. (On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History, 1841)

This is an adaptation of early Christian language (in the Gospel of John) applied more generally than to Jesus of Nazareth.

I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life. (John 8, 12.)

Therefore heroes in general do the kind of saving work for society that was given to the Gospel's overview of Jesus of Nazareth. The heroes too shine out of heaven.

Carlyle was promoting what moderns (and opposing postmoderns) would call universalism (an alternative term is spiritual idealism). This is not salvation for all, as such (if related) but the religion of the sacred in everything and in which people do the hard work of redeeming the world. Social change comes from individuals rather than changing structures or altering social groups. It is a conservative form of liberalism, a sacredness that gives individuals their value (and not utilitarian liberalism).

Carlyle was not an equalitarian as such, as was the movement of liberal and socialist thought at his time. He affirmed instead the individual as knowable, with a stress on relationship and feeling. Individuality is religious which therefore confers importance; industrialisation threatened the individual and therefore blasphemed the divinity found within. A likelihood of this position is that it sees a past agricultural situation as rosy and therefore rejects the industrial, rather than effecting a change to the economic and social relationships in commerce and in generating a more humanistic directed technology (especially if this is seen as impossible).

Not only did Carlyle refer to industrialised machinery in its specific sense, but he generalised it into a mode of living:

On every hand, the living artisan is driven from his workshop, to make room for a speedier, inanimate one. The shuttle drops from the fingers of the weaver, and falls into iron fingers that ply it faster. The sailor furls his sail, and lays down his oar; and bids a strong, unwearied servant, on vaporous wings, bear him through the waters. Men have crossed oceans by steam; the Birmingham Fire-king has visited the fabulous East; and the genius of the Cape, were there any Camoens now to sing it, has again been alarmed, and with far stranger thunders than Gamas. There is no end to machinery. (Signs of the Times, 1829)

Not the external and physical alone is now managed by machinery, but the internal and spiritual also. Has any man, or any society of men, a truth to speak, a piece of spiritual work to do; they can nowise proceed at once with the mere natural organs, but must first call a public meeting, appoint committees, issue prospectuses, eat a public dinner; in a word, construct or borrow machinery, wherewith to speak it and do it. (Signs of the Times, 1829)

So called spiritual work then is being blasphemed itself. The work once of quality and individuality gives way to selfsameness and indeed mechanical methods of organisation. Education is uniform; philosophy, science, art, and literature join in. Even religion itself joins in with the methods of the mechanised capitalist culture. This culture means that even the mind itself becomes mechanised. This is expressed in the last paragraph.

The technology creates its own metaphor for the whole of life.

More than this, it affects relationships. People are not just mechanised in their heads, but in their hearts. Society lost bonds of relationships that existed in agrarian times. When there is just a wages and contract economy, there is no bond of feeling, emotional sympathy, mutual loyalty or respect, whatever may be the increase in monetary wealth and an overall sense of mass technological power. Indeed rich and poor become seperated as the rich have what the poor support. Past and Present (1843) analyses the causes of social disorder that Carlyle believed must be inevitable set against an idealised image of a mediaeval monastery where there is a religious consciousness and therefore human feeling and responsibility towards one another.

Carlyle did not look towards creative genious and magnificent possibilities for human worth. Even the smallest productive task and the lowliest worker had dignity. Yet this had to be done not in a factory of remote mechanical methods and power structures, but in bonds of mutual connection. However, Carlyle saw that the industrial machine was all encompassing and showed sympathy with the lowest of the affected.

Today a great deal of thought goes into the humanising of work, sometimes because it is seen as being more productive in the medium to long run (happier workers). It also has its own ethical drive. Yet a sense of the sacred in work also suggests a religious drive too, though an effect of making the secular sacred is to make the sacred secular. The religious aspect is, perhaps, the giving for something greater: the skill of the person given through the task to produce something value added and truly worthwhile. That also requires a sense of appreciation and reward back.


Quotations, image extraction and argument elements drawn from: Harvie, C., Holderness, G., The Arts Foundation Course Team (1971), Industrialisation and Culture: Unit 31, The Debate on Industrialisation, The Open University Press.


Adrian Worsfold